Commentary: Wasted Energy – Debunking the Waste-to-Energy Scheme

Date: 1 Jul 2008 | posted in: waste - anti-incineration, Waste to Wealth | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

COMMENTARY: Wasted Energy – Debunking the Waste-to-Energy Scheme

By Neil Seldman, originally published in E-Magazine, July/August 2008

Like any other vampire, “waste to energy” technology, e.g., burning garbage for electricity, needs a good, swift stake to the heart.

Decades after garbage incinerators disappeared from U.S. cities, burning garbage with energy recovery made a dash for federal, state and city subsidies following the energy crisis in the l970s and ’80s. It had a brief flurry of activity but, by the time the ’90s hit, was on the decline. Only 30 of 300 proposed plants were ever built—the last ones in l995 as the result of some dubious political shenanigans in Syracuse, New York and Montgomery County, Maryland.

The scheme is more aptly described as “wasted energy,” as the energy produced through incineration at the plants is quite small compared to the amount of energy needed for extraction, processing and distribution, to replace the materials destroyed.

While environmental dangers from acid gasses, dioxin, particulates, lead and mercury alerted citizens to the dangers, the proposed plants were really outdone by the financial weight of the capital outlay—the operating costs and liabilities that a community had to undertake to build 1,000-ton-per-day facilities or larger. Detroit spent $1.2 billion to support a garbage incinerator for 200 years. The city council and mayor just cancelled any further dealings with the facility. In New Jersey, former governor Christine Todd Whitman had to drain the general budget of over $1 billion to bail out five county incinerators, as haulers could not afford to pay the tip fees needed to sustain the finances of plants and they took their trash to cheaper landfills in Pennsylvania.

No amount of subsidies, including arbitrage bonding, exemptions from hazardous waste regulations, mandatory purchase of electricity, put or pay contracts, tax credits and court rulings could sustain such financially and environmentally outlandish technologies. The companies offering these technologies ended their runs. This was no small accomplishment for the millions of citizens and small business owners who banded together in a spontaneous grassroots movement to gain control over the decision-making process at the local level. These citizen-activists reclaimed America’s birthright of local democracy, despite harassment, including SLAPP (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation) lawsuits.

Now a new wave of Wall Street consortia have pooled their billions and adopted a ‘new’ wave of technologies—plasma arc, pyrolysis and gasification. These so-called non-incineration technologies gasify garbage and burn the gas. Proponents scold citizens and reporters who refer to these facilities as incinerators.

Frederick, Maryland officials made it easier to settle this dispute. They touted their new plan for a facility as non-incineration. When opponents questioned them, they directed them to look at the facility in nearby Montgomery County, Maryland, which was an old fashioned mass burn, water wall incinerator.

You expect these new consortia to try to take advantage of the latest energy crisis to make a killing. What is unexpected is the total lack of due diligence on the part of both local officials and environmental organizations.

Local officials in Florida, for example, are supporting a 3,000-ton-per-day plasma arc incinerator (scaled up from a pilot plant of 100 tons per day) without knowing the actual costs involved, emissions data, status of put or pay clauses, or which counties will commit their garbage to what will be the largest garbage incinerator ever operated in the world. Bradley Angel of GreenAction in San Francisco dubs these facilities “incinerators in disguise.”

Citizens in Los Angeles seem to have put the proper parameters on their city, which is evaluating these new alternative technologies. L.A. citizens will only allow consideration of waste-to-energy technologies if they are scaled at not more than 10% of the waste stream and no materials set aside for recycling are incinerated. Citizens have shown their support for modestly scaled (300 tons per day) biological systems, which generate methane from organic matter. To its credit, the city is listening to its citizens and has implemented diverse programs to reduce the materials placed in the waste bin and increase materials going into the compost and recycling bins.

The state of Florida has taken the opposite course. A recent law calls for 75% recycling, but will count garbage that is incinerated as recycling. Paper and plastic set aside for the BTU-hungry incinerators can claim recycling. Meanwhile hundreds and thousands of cities and counties are solving their problems with no landfill extensions and no incinerators. Recycling rates in towns that don’t kid around are hitting the 60% level, headed toward 70 and even 90% by 2025. A vibrant take-it-back network, which confronts the unfunded mandates of products and packages designed for immediate disposal are aggressively challenging manufacturers in the North West, New England and California through stewardship councils that pinpoint products and packages that are hard to recycle and/or contain hazardous materials. Manufacturers are being pressured to pay for the financial burden they place on households and businesses.

Many manufacturers have responded with zero waste pledges and accomplishments. Grocery chains are striving for zero waste at the checkout counters, as well as recycling and composting the materials that they generate in their stores. The concept and practice of zero waste has entered into mainstream thinking and action. In one generation, the U.S. recycling movement has matured into a zero waste movement

Why is there a new wave of incinerator promotion? Wall Street greed is understandable during a time of energy and economic panic. Not only do the venture capitalists seek to gain fortunes from cities and counties for the facilities, but Wall Street firms will issue billions of dollars in bonds at great profit to them and participating investors. Incumbent officials always love bond issues as it leads to financial patronage. The large hauling firms support incinerators as a way to keep the status quo of mass disposal intact. Virgin materials corporations want to see recycled materials incinerated and remove 10,000 local governments from competing with them as suppliers of secondary materials, which compete directly with raw materials extracted from nature.

While some national environmental organizations have closed ranks with the big manufacturers, the grassroots environmental movement is steadily growing in size and ambitions. Demanding zero waste in 2008 is a far more radical proposition than calling for recycling and composting in the ’80s and ’90s. Activists are taking on the core of the system.

The key fault line appears to be at the county and city level. Despite new calls for green cities and counties, officials seem to have lost the forest for the trees. The single largest thing a city or county can do to add to its local economy and reduce its global environmental footprint is to transform its waste stream into a resource stream. Local governments are totally in charge of what they do with these raw materials. Yet, despite the success of small towns, large cities and rural counties in approaching zero waste (90% or more diversion from landfill and incineration), elected officials seem to be asleep at the switch—falling for the huckster’s call for an easy fix to the garbage and energy crises.

NEIL SELDMAN is co-founder and president of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. He is a senior staff to ILSR’s Waste to Wealth Program and is responsible for recycling and economic development projects in 20 cities across the U.S.

About ILSR: The Institute for Local Self-Reliance is a nonprofit organization founded in 1974 to advance sustainable, equitable, and community-centered economic development through research and educational activities and technical assistance. More at

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Neil Seldman

Neil Seldman, Ph.D, directs the Waste to Wealth Initiative. He specializes in helping cities and businesses recover increasing amounts of materials from the waste stream and add value to the local economy through new processing and manufacturing facilities. He is a co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance.